It’s September, and my Facebook feed is filled with wistful Empty Nester posts from parents whose kids are off to college. From the “Where did the time go?” laments, to the “My child’s departure is making me face my own marital issues” confessionals, to the “Is it wrong that I’m thrilled my surly teen is finally off to college?” shockers, these posts are borderline maudlin. To all these sentimental parents I have something to say: gimme a break.
Look, I feel for you. Your kid is leaving. Time flies. Kids grow. Skin sags. But I’m a few years ahead of you on the old “kids leaving the house” train, and I’ve got news: You ain’t seen nothing yet.
How the Empty Nest Really Works
Sure, it’s a life shift, but your kid will be home more than you think. Mid-October, they’ll decamp to their bedrooms for four or five days because universities have decided that kids need, after a nanosecond of school, a “mid-semester break.” A few short weeks after that, it’s Thanksgiving break, which, for many schools, is now a whole week. A week during which you will only get a glimpse of them, hung-over at the holiday table, after the traditional “Wednesday before Thanksgiving and all my high school friends are home from school” bar crawl.
After a mere four months of quasi-solo living, they’ll be incapable of waking before noon or putting a cereal bowl in the dishwasher.
Only a few weeks after that, they will return to you once again, inevitably sick and laden with smelly laundry, for Winter Break. This time, they will remain home for six weeks. Six weeks with a kid who left knowing there were rules to follow and parents who had authority, but who has returned, after a mere four months of quasi-solo living, confident in their maturity, convinced of their independence, and constitutionally incapable of waking before noon or putting a cereal bowl in the dishwasher before you discover it under their bed so crusted over that superior skill with a chisel is the only thing that can salvage it.
Finally, they stay at school for a few more months, take a spring break trip that doesn’t include you and that you’d really rather not know the details of anyway, and then – just when you’ve gotten into the groove of not having kids around—they’re home again: for three months. Preferably with a job, but certainly with the attitude that they are now full-fledged adults who haven’t had to follow your rules all year, and they aren’t going to start now.
That summer, after a year of constant contact and interaction with their peers, your kids will spend nights sighing heavily, doom scrolling, and complaining that they’re bored. And you will spend days feeling hurt and rejected, because you were so looking forward to having three months together and now you’re feeling like three months is an awfully long time for your kid to be home.
This pattern will continue for four years. Four years of the regular, predictable return of your prodigal offspring, their odiferous laundry, and their exponentially decreasing desire to spend time with you. With each passing year, you will increasingly feel that you are but a way station on their way to adulthood. A place to get free food, use a bathroom not overrun with mold and whatever that blob in the corner of the dorm shower was that even maintenance wouldn’t touch, and occasionally remind you, when you come upon them, on the couch, sleeping off a night out with their friends, of the sweet children they were, the adults they’re becoming, and the enormous electric bill you just got because in the six weeks since their return, it has never once occurred to them to turn off a light.
When Does Empty Nesting Really Begin?
Then they graduate. And that, oh, grieving parents, is when the shift hits the fam. My son moved to a different city right after graduation, so even though his twin sister had moved home for a bit, I could see what was coming. The real emptying of the nest built over a lifetime, twig by twig, dirty tissue by lint no one cleaned out of the dryer. With only my daughter at home, my husband and I savored every late-night chat, every family dinner that was minus one kid, but at least not both. Then she moved out, too. To an apartment so tiny, so bleak, that the fact that she’d rather live there than at home with us was borderline insulting.
Now, I have a real empty nest. That means no regularly scheduled visits you can look up at the registrar’s office. No sleepless nights when your kid stays out until 5am, or blissful relief when she returns. Real empty nesting means no impromptu dinners eating Chinese food out of the container while the whole family re-watches episodes of The Office for the umpteenth time. For four years of college, you’re able to plan and take family vacations. Your home is still their home: their stuff in the closets, their hair in the sink, your favorite shoes missing because “well, you never wear them and they looked great with my outfit.”
As he left after the weekend home, he turned and said: Thanks for having me.
Real empty nesting is when you’d give anything for an overblown electric bill, an overabundance of laundry, the occasional chance to nonchalantly, when you come upon your child sprawled in front of the television, give them a kiss on the top of the head.
A few months ago, my son was home for a visit. As he left after the weekend, he turned and said: Thanks for having me.
Thanks for having me? In your own home? In your own family? In near proximity to the womb in which you gestated for only 35 weeks before your twin, tired of the cramped quarters, kicked you out and the two of you joined us in the great big world? Thanks for having me? As if you’re a guest. A passer-by. An adult who has left the nest, has a new home, new furniture, new friends, new job. New life.
But that’s the job of a parent: to build the nest, then teach them to fly away from it. So I pushed away memories of baby him reaching through the slats of his crib to hold my hand as he fell asleep, four-year- old him in the pirate costume he wore every day, teenaged him with a broken nose after a basketball mishap. I resisted the urge to grab him, pull him back into our home, his room, his childhood. Instead, I simply said, “thanks for being here,” shut the door behind him, and turned to face my empty nest.